TUCSON, Ariz.--Rethink Robotics founder Rodney Brooks took to the stage at the Techonomy conference here to talk about the wonders of his new robot, Baxter, which is designed to work on factory floors doing dull and necessary tasks. He costs just $22,000 and works for what amounts to $4 an hour.
Baxter is a step forward in robotics with mass potential. It has a face and sensors to tell it when people are near. It's about as close to a humanoid robot as we can get, and Brooks said it's just the beginning.
"Within 10 years, we're going to see humanoid robots," said Brooks, who was a co-founder of iRobot, maker of iRoomba, the vacuum cleaner robot.
Brooks rolled out Baxter this fall (see this), and he expects it to evolve as people cater to its needs. Baxter, you see, is a platform -- complete with a software development kit that developers are just now starting to work with.
The question -- and this became the crux of today's debate -- is just what Baxter and his offspring will mean for U.S. manufacturing. If you believe Brooks, it'll help the hundreds of thousands of small U.S. manufacturers who can't find people willing to do the robotic tasks they need.
"People don't want to go into manufacturing," said Brooks, who was joined by MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee and moderator John Markoff of The New York Times. "The [average] age of manufacturing workers is getting older...Our approach is to make it more attractive to stay at home instead of outsourcing."
Indeed, to hear Brooks describe it, the world is about to see an influx of Baxters to take on meaningful tasks far beyond what we have now. Part of the impetus: the aging population. "Elder care is going to be an incredible pull on automating technology," he said.
In short, this is going to happen. Those visions of humanoid robots will become reality. And all this robotic advancement -- represented by Baxter -- is going to crush U.S. manufacturing jobs. That was the argument of McAfee, who said he has no doubts on the impact. "When it comes to the impact of technology on the labor force," said McAfee, "we ain't seen nothing yet...As technology races ahead, it's leaving a lot of workers behind."
McAfee concedes that most economists disagree with him, arguing that technological advancement replaces more jobs than it takes away. But he's convinced this revolution is too big.
"I see technology encroaching into human skills and abilities," he said, talking about advancements of sensors and self-driving cars. "We now have computers that can translate between languages and write our prose. Combine that with Watson [the IBM computer], and I start to see a lot of what human beings contribute to the workforce. There's a lot of economic activity that doesn't need good old-fashioned labor activity."
For the audience here, of course, that's not terrible. This is a crowd of technology enthusiasts, always looking for opportunities, and it's a vision that offers big possibilities. As McAfee summed it up, "This is a good time to be a smart, technologically sophisticated entrepreneur."